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Homelessness on rise; Housing alliance helps rebuild lives.

Byline: Lee Hammel

Yesabel Collazo's New Year's Eve consisted of winding up with her two children in a motel paid for by the state after getting evicted from her apartment.

It does not take a math major to figure out why the 27-year-old, who has undergone two surgeries for cancer, lost both her apartment ($550 rent per month) and car ($130 insurance per month). After quitting her job because the co-worker who drove her from her apartment in Southbridge to her work in Worcester quit the job, she was living on $518 a month from the state Department of Transitional Assistance, Ms. Collazo said.

Unlike the previous time she was evicted, when she moved from friend to friend six times, she found herself living for two weeks in the Quality Inn on Lincoln Street with about 80 others paid for by DTA, she said, with "no life. It was horrible."

Then she got her own apartment at The Village, an emergency housing site operated by the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance. There CMHA is helping Ms. Collazo and 34 other families with 74 children rebuild their lives to work toward permanent housing, with a goal of finding permanent housing within six months.

Ms. Collazo is the face of a growing problem in Worcester County. The "point in time" survey that CMHA undertook for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Jan. 28 shows that homelessness among families deepened as the nation's economy continues to implode.

The survey counted 1,414 homeless people - living in families or individually - in the county on a single day, Jan. 28, up 10 percent from the count a year earlier. But a curious trend has developed.

Among individuals, 11.6 percent fewer people - 518 - were homeless this year across the county. Yet 27.1 percent more people living in families - 896 - were living in emergency or transitional shelters or even unsheltered entirely. That does not count people living doubled up with family or friends because they lost their own homes.

It is the second year in a row that individual homelessness fell and family homelessness increased. The city of Worcester reflects that trend: a 12.2 percent drop in individual homelessness, to 361 people, and a 27.9 percent increase, to 692, in people living in homeless families.

Across the county there were 878 people in emergency shelters, a 31 percent increase, and 36 people with no shelter at all - two more than last year, the survey found. While the number of single individuals in emergency shelters dropped by 12 to 306, the number of family members in emergency shelters in the county jumped 62 percent, to 572.

The survey did not find any families with children unsheltered last year, but it found six family members without any shelter 2-1/2 months ago. It found 30 unsheltered individuals this year, four fewer than last year.

Thirty more

units of permanent housing have been made available in the area for individuals since January 2008 , according to Grace K. Carmark, the housing alliance's executive director. No similar effort is being made for families, whose homelessness is not as noticeable to the public, she said.

There is deep disagreement on why.

Ms. Carmark contends that the federal government has prioritized funding for chronic, individual homelessness without directing new dollars for family homelessness in more than a decade. That has worked wonders in reducing individual homelessness with additional housing through private nonprofit agencies such as South Middlesex Opportunity Council and private funding from the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts.

But not for families, she said. The state added 59 units of emergency shelter at scattered sites by Feb. 1, she said.

That was not in time for the January point-in-time survey, but it has reduced the number of families on state assistance living in motels or hotels in the city from 72 to 14, Ms. Carmark said. And help is on the way with federal stimulus dollars that will enable foreclosed buildings to be returned to permanent housing for families or individuals, she said.

Philip Mangano, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, strongly disagrees. He acknowledges that the federal government prioritizes chronically homeless individuals, doubling federal spending on all homelessness from $2.5 billion in 2000 to record spending of $5 billion last year.

But he said advocates have not done their homework if they think that is why family homelessness has increased across the country, by 11 percent last year according to the best data available. Even while individuals have been prioritized, spending on the McKinney Act that funds projects serving mothers and children increased from $686 million in fiscal 2006 to $729 million the next year to $813 million last year, he said.

The federal homelessness chief said that the double wallop of snowballing housing foreclosures and recessionary unemployment - which do not as severely affect chronically homeless individuals who may not have jobs or homes - have overwhelmed the efforts to assist families. He said it is natural to prioritize chronically homeless individuals because they comprise about 67 percent of the homeless population and they consume medical, social and criminal justice resources out of proportion to their numbers.

Mr. Mangano praised Worcester officials who, like the officials of 850 other communities, joined in developing 350 plans to end homelessness in their communities. He said

Worcester got $5.5 million in HUD funding last year, $2.39 million in neighborhood stabilization federal funds and $1.9 million in federal stimulus funds for preventing homelessness or re-housing those who need it.

Ms. Carmark said while larger cities got federal funds for families, Worcester did not. Glad as she is that individual homelessness is declining, she said a greater percentage of federal dollars need to be directed at families.

Robert I. Pulster, executive director of the state Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness, agreed that there have been state and federal funds targeted at homeless individuals. "On the family side, there are resources, but I don't think they have been as targeted as they have been on the individual side.

"There's certainly a lot of movement now to replicate what we've seen on the individual side" for families, he said.

Meanwhile, Ms. Collazo has not been able to pass a test to take a course on becoming a phlebotomist, but she has taken a test given by the state to qualify as a correction officer. She plans to take another test to qualify to be a police officer. In preparation for that and the rigors of the training if she passes, Ms. Collazo said she runs a mile every day to get to an outdoor track to run a lap there,

goes to the YMCA three times a week for further physical training, and studies three hours daily at the public library.

"I'm lucky to be here," she said of The Village. "I've got to thank God."

Contact Lee Hammel by e-mail at


CUTLINE: (1) Yesabel Collazo, 27, and her children have found temporary lodging at The Village, an emergency housing site. (2) Yesabel Collazo, with 11-month-old Yandel Collazo. (CHART) Breakfown by area (GRAPH) Homeless families growing

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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 15, 2009
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